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I went panning for gold in Scotland — this is what I found

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As a jewellery editor it’s important to know where precious materials come from, whether it’s diamonds from South Africa or rubies from India. But even I could be forgiven for thinking that the UK wasn’t a source for anything particularly high value. But (ahem) dig a little deeper and it turns out that Scotland has a small but significant amount of gold. Yes, there’s gold in them thar hills, if you know where to look for it.

So I jumped at the chance to go and find it for myself, buoyed by the news that a nugget of more than 30g was recently found in a river in the Scottish Borders by a gold hunter wearing a snorkel and a drysuit.

My connector into this secretive world is the jeweller Ellis Mhairi Cameron, a Scottish designer and maker, originally from a village near Oban, who takes inspiration from the beautiful landscape around her family’s farm. Cameron’s designs are deeply connected to her roots, so it makes sense for her to source Scottish gold too. But supplies are limited, so much so that she is only able to use it on a small number of bespoke commissions — about three or four pieces a year, which have a starting price of £3,500. “I also only offer it to the right people,” she says, “those who understand how special it is.”

Scottish gold ring, £3,995, ellismhairicameron.com

I meet Cameron with her prospector, Alan (a truck driver as well as a gold hunter), at the Green Welly Stop shop and café at the northwestern edge of the Trossachs. Ten minutes later we are riverside — Alan has a permit and permission from the landowner (both are required if you’re tempted to have a go) — and he is unpacking his equipment. His essentials are a green plastic pan with a sieve that fits snuggly on top, a shovel and a homemade pump fashioned from a length of black drainpipe with a plunger at one end. High-tech it certainly ain’t.

Gazing up at the snow-topped Crianlarich Munros — they are looking super-photogenic thanks to it being a clear sunny day — and down at the burbling river below, I’m reminded that technical prowess isn’t exactly the point here. Indeed, the unspoilt nature of the surrounding landscape, formed millions of years ago with the help of a few active volcanoes plus millennia of water erosion, makes finding gold here a strong probability. Isn’t Mother Nature amazing?

With direction from Alan we get into the fast-flowing river and begin hoovering up pebbles and sediment from the riverbed. We do so close to the bank using the drainpipe plunger and dump it into the sieve that’s on top of the pan. A quick shake and the smaller stones and grit fall through into the pan below before we throw the bigger pieces back into the water.

Then, with what’s left, panning begins. Alan demonstrates a swirling, washing motion that swills the grit and stones round and round, with the less dense pieces rising to the top and tipping over the side of the pan. He is a dab hand, of course. I’m hopeless. I worry that all I’m doing is swilling valuable gold back into the river, but Alan reassures me. “It’s heavy so it will sink to the bottom. You need to get rid of everything else so you can see it.” I’m sure there’s a Scottish proverb to be gleaned from that.

Jessica panning in the Trossachs; her hard-won fragments of gold

Jessica panning in the Trossachs; her hard-won fragments of gold

MICHAEL SREENAN

It’s slow-going, back-breaking work, but thank goodness the sun is shining and the midges aren’t biting. I find the process both soothing and strangely addictive. The first pan yields nothing, neither do the second and third — other than some dark red garnets (not jewellery grade, but amazing!). And then there’s the deceptively glittery pyrite — or fool’s gold — that provides momentary elation.

Two hours in, almost ready to call it quits for the day, it suddenly happens: we strike gold. In our final pan, covered by a thin layer of sand, I spot the unmistakable glow of three tiny fragments of gold. There is whooping and cheering — more from me than Alan — as the literal gold rush kicks in. Carefully Alan places the gold into a tiny tube: this is precious, hard-won treasure.

I’m eager to discover the value of our haul. Alan advises me it’s about one tenth of a gram and worth twice the amount of regular gold, which makes my microscopic specks worth about, er, £12. I won’t quit my day job yet, then. Still, when Alan’s not hampered by an amateur like me he can expect to find between half and one gram a day.

For a traceable, thoroughly British material collected in a landscape that looks as good as this one, though, I honestly don’t think Scottish gold can be beaten.

ellismhairicameron.com

Highland flings

Scotland is brimming with talented jewellers, and here are some of my favourites

For chain lovers

The slinky chains by the Edinburgh-based jeweller Joanne Thompson have plenty of playful movement. Look out for her two-tone gold and silver versions.

Lockhart fine chain necklace in silver, oxidised silver and gold, £4,600, joanne-thompson-jewellery.myshopify.com

Lockhart fine chain necklace in silver, oxidised silver and gold, £4,600, joanne-thompson-jewellery.myshopify.com

For off-beat colour combos

Designed and made in Dumfries and Galloway, Alison Macleod’s designs using unusual stones are pieces to keep for ever.

Happenstance Pear Aqua ring in gold with aquamarine, diamond and emerald, £2,620, aetla.co.uk

Happenstance Pear Aqua ring in gold with aquamarine, diamond and emerald, £2,620, aetla.co.uk

For architecture nerds

Forget soft curves and rounded edges, the jewellery by Romany Starrs is all about straight lines and graphic shapes.

Harlequin cocktail earrings in yellow and white gold with diamonds, £9,500, romanystarrs.com

Harlequin cocktail earrings in yellow and white gold with diamonds, £9,500, romanystarrs.com

For designs with a twist

Ruth Leslie specialises in twisted wire in silver, gold or titanium using an old-fashioned hand drill. The end results are pleasingly tactile.

Ossein bangle in silver, £795, ruthleslie.co.uk

Ossein bangle in silver, £795, ruthleslie.co.uk

For head-turning texture

Andrew Lamb uses gold and silver wire to create award-winning intricatejewels that are full of texture and subtle colour variations.

Brooch in yellow and white gold, price on application, andrewlamb.co.uk

Brooch in yellow and white gold, price on application, andrewlamb.co.uk

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